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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Political Correctness

Those who know me well in the offline world might accuse me of being in favor of Political Correctness, due to some of what I do and recommend.  Others who have heard me speak explicitly of Political Correctness might believe that I view Political Correctness as a bad thing.  Both groups would be mistaken.

Recently, in an online discussion forum I visit from time to time, someone posed a question about Political Correctness, asking if it had gone too far, and lamenting that "Merry Christmas" was an expression frowned upon and that a Nativity scene could not be displayed for that holiday (Yes, I know it's May, and Christmas is in December, but I didn't write the post that inspired me to write all of this).

I started to post a reply, but my interest in discussions on that site tends to wax and wane, and at the moment, my interest in participation there is somewhat low.  I won't go into the reasons for my current lack of interest;  they are irrelevant to what I would like to say here, and are probably of little interest to anyone who might be reading this.

If I had posted a reply, it would have gone something like this:

The minority must be protected;  this is a hallmark of free societies.  The will of the majority must never deprive the minority of rights, and the rights enshrined in, for example, the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution, must apply to all citizens, not merely the majority.  This includes the implicit right to freedom of conscience and the right to expect the religion of others to not be shoved down one's throat.

Once upon a time, a central belief of Baptists was the Separation of Church and State, and has been described as "a Baptist distinctive."  Baptists had endured much persecution under governments where there was no such separation between government and religion, and for this reason, they embraced the Separation of Church and State.  In recent years, the Southern Baptists have, for the most part, strayed from this perspective.

You can say "Merry Christmas" all you want, if you are not acting in any official government capacity when you do so, because that could be interpreted as the state attempting to not merely endorse the Christian religion, but also as the state advocating that religion.  You can decorate with a Christmas Tree or even a Nativity scene, as long as you're not doing so on government property (the Tree is less likely to get objection, since the origins of that particular custom predate Christianity, and the Yule Tree has become somewhat generic as a symbol of the season).

Would you like to see your government putting up displays of the infant Sri Krishna on the courthouse lawn in honor of Krishna Jayanti (the celebration of the birth of Krishna)?
The Infant Sri Krishna

Would you like to see the Buddhist flag hoisted on your courthouse flagpole to celebrate Vesak (the birth of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha)?

Buddhist Flag

What would you think of your city being lit up brightly in celebration of Shab-e-Mi'raj, the night when Muhammed was taken to "the furthest mosque" and ascended into the highest heaven, met various personages including Isa (Jesus) and Allah, was told that the people must pray 50 times a day, and asked Allah for a reduction in that number until the total was lowered to five times a day?

What about a huge feast and a libation of mead to the Norse God of Thunder on Þorrablót, sponsored by the city where you live, and paid for with Your Tax Dollars?

Would you accept the celebration of the Birth of the Invincible Sun (Mithras) on 25 December by your city, with the city government buying a bull (with Your Tax Dollars) and sacrificing it to Mithras?

What if your child's teacher, in a public school, opened the day with prayer to a Voodoo Loa, by killing a chicken and sprinkling its blood around, drinking rum and smoking a cigar?  Would that be acceptable?

(I really shouldn't have to remind Christians of what Jesus is supposed to have taught in Matthew 6: 5-6, which strongly suggests that all these attempts to enforce "prayer in public school" would not be looked upon favorably by Jesus, and yet, many Christians insist that such a thing is necessary and would result in blessings for the nation, in defiance of Jesus' teachings in the passage mentioned above.)

This list can go on indefinitely.  If you wouldn't appreciate any of these things, try putting yourself in the shoes of those who are adherents of these religions (or the shoes of an atheist), and imagine seeing a Christmas Nativity scene on the lawn of the White House, with figures and lights bought by Your Tax Dollars, and the electric bill for running these lights likewise paid for by Your Tax Dollars, in a nation where "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." -- would this not make you more than uncomfortable, and maybe even a little angry?

What if you were an atheist?  Would you like Your Tax Dollars being spent on religious imagery and/or religious activities?

Political Correctness, like many other things, has had both good and bad influences on society.  Some of the good influences include encouraging people to be considerate of the feelings of others, as I hope I have explained above.  Some of the bad influences include allegations of bias being used as a form of defense, or in an effort to get one's way through guilt tripping others.  Not every white male in the South who didn't want to vote for President Obama was motivated by a racist perspective or latent racist tendencies;  some genuinely didn't like his platform, and others wouldn't have voted for any candidate who won the Democratic Party's nomination due to exposure to the views of the Republican Party.  I won't belabor the point;  ill effects exist, but so do good effects.  Political Correctness is neither perfect nor entirely wrong.

If I were to offer a lengthy critique of Political Correctness, I would necessarily mention the view that the PC crowd includes a lot of self-righteous busybodies (and a few neurotic people who would be offended at even extremely trivial things).  At the same time, the charge of self-righteous busybodyism is not limited to the PC crowd;  many proponents of the Religious Right are also (somewhat obviously, and far from unexpectedly) guilty of this dysfunction.

If I were writing a lengthy critique of Political Correctness, I would certainly make some comments about the proponents of Political Correctness accusing anyone who dares to criticize it of being racist, sexist, and/or homophobic, and how they have in fact defined "anyone who disagrees with Political Correctness" as "racist, sexist, and/or homophobic."  It didn't work for Anselm of Canterbury in his ontological argument wherein  he attempted to define the Christian God into existence.  It won't work for you, either;  your attempts to, essentially, automatically excommunicate any critics from polite society by defining your critics as "really bad people" only results in you making yourselves look like morons (and cheapens the terms "racist," "sexist," and "homophobe," which really are really bad things to be, and which are terms that should be reserved for those who are actually guilty of those vices, rather than your philosophical adversaries, much less those who have some sympathy for the goals of Political Correctness and yet see the flaws and excesses for what they are and are courageous enough to offer criticism).

What is the solution?  Well, I'm not sure there is a single solution;  I'm not sure there is only one correct answer.  However, critics are often (ironically) criticized for complaining and not suggesting any alternative or solution, so I'm going to state what I believe would be an improvement.

The improvement I would suggest to proponents of Political Correctness is really quite a simple one (and applicable to many an -ism), yet might prove to be quite challenging for devotees of Political Correctness (or any other -ism):  avoid making it into a worldview.

A worldview will affect your perception of literally everything.  A worldview colors the lens through which you see all things.  A worldview, in short, requires assumptions which can, if one is not careful, bias one's view of anything and everything.

A worldview is not bad.  Everyone has a worldview.  A worldview helps us make sense of our situation in life, provides landmarks for our outlook, helps us develop our perspective.  Some -isms are, necessarily, worldviews.

However, some -isms are simply not worthy of becoming worldviews, and, much more importantly, any -ism, and even any worldview, must remain subject to doubt and rational analysis, as well as considerations of the effects of behavior influenced thereby on ourselves and others.  To embrace any -ism or worldview to the point that it blinds us or leads to bias is to enter into an unholy pact with tyranny.

We should not be willing to kill or die for our beliefs, for we are, when we are being honest with ourselves, simply not that certain of those beliefs;  any number of interpretations exist, and we must admit that someone else may have a better and/or more accurate interpretation than we do.

We must hearken to critics of our beliefs, and consider their criticisms, for they may well make points worthy of consideration.  Refusal to listen to our critics indicates fear on our part, and reveals our own doubts about our beliefs.  If our beliefs are correct, legitimate criticism will not harm them, but may instead help us to refine those beliefs themselves, our own understanding of our beliefs, and our expression of those beliefs.

We must always be willing to consider and reconsider our beliefs.  We must avoid dogmatism and fight every form of tyranny, whether it be tyranny of a political nature, or tyranny of an intellectual nature.  Freedom of conscience, and freedom of intellectual inquiry, are virtues, and dogmatism is a vice.

No, we should not be willing to kill or die for our beliefs.  We should, though, be willing to kill or die for our freedom to hold those beliefs, and the freedom of others to disagree and hold their own beliefs.  This is a very basic concept which once inspired our defenders, and which should once more be elevated to the high place it once held in our collective consciousness.  As Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote (under the nom de plume S.G. Tallentyre) in The Friends of Voltaire:  "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In the particular statement quoted in the preceding paragraph, a very strong support of the freedom of speech is explicitly declared, and such a very strong endorsement of the freedom of speech will naturally have implications for Political Correctness.  Nevertheless, free speech does have limits.  Besides the illegality of slander and libel, the classic example of such limitation is the judgment that freedom of speech does not entitle someone to falsely yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, a precedent established in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).  By the same token, I would argue, speech which is intended and likely to incite or produce hate crimes (or other "imminent lawless action") ought to likewise be limited, a judgment which was established by Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

However, the sentiment expressed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall is, with only slight paraphrasing, equally applicable to freedom of conscience, and has rightly been applied thereto by older generations.

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

“If man is to survive, he will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. He will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety, not something to fear.”
-- Gene Roddenberry

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